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Mine e-waste, not the Earth

  • Category
    Environment
  • Published
    17th May, 2022

Context

According to scientists, the recycling of e-waste must urgently be ramped up because mining the Earth for precious metals to make new gadgets is unsustainable.

Background

What is E-Waste?

  • E-Waste is short for Electronic-Waste and the term is used to describe old, end-of-life or discarded electronic appliances. It includes their components, consumables, parts and spares.
  • It is categorised into 21 types under two broad categories:
    • Information technology and communication equipment.
    • Consumer electrical and electronics.
  • Laws to manage e-waste have been in place in India since 2011, mandating that only authorised dismantlers and recyclers collect e-waste. E-waste (Management) Rules, 2016 was enacted in 2017.
  • India’s first e-waste clinic for segregating, processing and disposal of waste from household and commercial units has been be set-up in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.
Recent estimates:
  • The "mountain" of waste electronic and electrical equipment discarded in 2021 will weigh more than 57 million tonnes.
  • This is heavier than the Great Wall of China - the planet's heaviest artificial object.
  • Globally, the amount of so called e-waste generation is growing by two million tonnes every year.
  • It is estimated that less than 20% is collected and recycled.

Growing demand:

  • Geopolitical unrest, including the war in Ukraine, has caused huge spikes in the price of materials like nickel, a key element in electric vehicle batteries.
  • Volatility in the market for elements is causing "chaos in supply chains" that enables the production of electronics.
  • Combined with the surge in demand, this caused the price of lithium- another important component in battery technology - to increase by almost 500% between 2021 and 2022.

Elements in smartphones that could run out in the next century:

  • Gallium:Used in medical thermometers, LEDs, solar panels, telescopes and has possible anti-cancer properties
  • Arsenic:Used in fireworks, as a wood preserver
  • Silver:Used in mirrors, reactive lenses that darken in sunlight, antibacterial clothing and gloves for use with touch-screens
  • Indium:Used in transistors, microchips, fire-sprinkler systems, as a coating for ball-bearings in Formula One cars and solar panels
  • Yttrium:Used in white LED lights, camera lenses and can be used to treat some cancers
  • Tantalum:Used in surgical implants, electrodes for neon lights, turbine blades, rocket nozzles and nose caps for supersonic aircraft, hearing aids and pacemakers
     

Doing the numbers

  • A record 53.6 million metric tons of electronic waste were generated worldwide in 2019, up 21% in just five years.
  • E-waste is also predicted to reach 74 million metric tons by 2030, almost doubling its actual figures in 15 years.
  • This makes e-waste the fastest-growing domestic waste stream on a global scale.

 

Practice Question

Q1. E-waste is a serious threat accompanying the digital revolution in India. Do you agree? What are the current provisions to address the challenge of e-waste in India? Critically review. 

Q2. Analyse the reasons behind India’s problem of e-waste and provide an account for the ineffectiveness of the rules.

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